Saturday, May 18, 2013
Covering Dallas, Monmouth, Independence, Falls City and surrounding areas since 1868
Dallas High grad Becca Cudmore spent three weeks in Indonesian Borneo this summer studying orangutans as part of a University of Oregon undergraduate thesis.
September 25, 2012
DALLAS -- Becca Cudmore, a 2008 graduate of Dallas High School, took a three-week trip to Indonesian Borneo this summer to study how orangutans communicate.
She returned from the island nation with a drive to help save the critically endangered apes from extinction.
Orangutans are dying at an unprecedented rate, mostly due to rainforest destruction in their natural habitats in Borneo and Sumatra. Cudmore said if they continue to die at the current rate, orangutans will disappear from the wild in five to 10 years.
"If they do go extinct, it's the first great ape in human history (to go extinct,)" Cudmore said. "In other extinctions there may have been other factors, but there's a lot of evidence that this is caused by humans."
Specifically, by people clearing rainforest to make room for developments or to grow crops. Cudmore said the main culprit in Borneo is palm oil, which is used in the prepared foods and cosmetics industry.
An anthropology major at the University of Oregon, Cudmore spent her time in Borneo at the Orangutan Care Center conducting her undergraduate thesis research.
The center rehabilitates orphaned orangutans in an effort to release them back into the wild. Cudmore said the center's existence is a direct result of orangutan mothers dying as the forest is cleared. Cudmore worked with the rescued young orangutans as they were trained for eventual release back into the wild.
She found the great apes to be extraordinarily smart.
Cudmore researched orangutan gestures when communicating with other orangutans and humans.
Cudmore said orangutans "talk" with each other using facial expressions -- lip pouts, for example. But when communicating with humans, they use their hands much like we do, pointing and clapping to get their point across.
Cudmore said being able to recognize the need to adapt language to successfully communicate is a mark of high intelligence.
"They aren't `dumb-headed beasts,'" she said. "Maybe if people see that, they will think they do deserve to live."
That realization certainly spurred Cudmore to action. Now she would like to spread that message to a wider audience, starting in Dallas.
"I took great interest in saving orangutans and not supporting the palm oil industry," she said, noting that it's not just the orangutans affected by habitat destruction, but all species living in rainforests.
She said there are responsible palm oil growers who produce sustainable crops, but the oil is often produced on large plantations in what was formerly a diverse rainforest.
Demand for palm oil is increasing as it is an inexpensive way to add flavor and creamy texture to low fat foods, Cudmore said. It's widely used in cosmetics, as well.
She said the most powerful tool against further rainforest destruction is knowledge -- in this case knowing to look for palm or palm oil on product ingredient lists.
"The biggest thing is getting the word out," she said. "That can have the largest impact. Giving people an opportunity to make their own choices. I think that is best."
Cudmore has contacted Dallas schools about talking to students about saving orangutans and rainforest conservation. She also hopes to encourage students by using her experience as an example of what a college education can offer.
"It's possible to go do big things," she said. "Someone from Dallas can be doing stuff in a place called Borneo. There are opportunities like this out there."
While orangutans and other rainforest-dwelling species have declined in large part due to humans, Cudmore sees a sliver of hope in the situation.
"We have the power to fix it -- or make it worse," she said. "Right now we just aren't fixing it quick enough."